There is a certain givenness to life – at least a whole lot of it. I have gradually come to accept that thirty years, ok, forty years after my growth spurt, I will never be taller than 5’7″. I’ve even given up on adding the extra 1/2″ that I claimed for many years. You are what you are. There is something deeply anti-modern about such a confession. To agree that your gender is the same gender you were born with and that there is nothing you wish to do about it is, at least, out of step with most of network television.
We live in the land of choice and thrive in an economy of choice. Thus anything that offers us the ability to redefine ourselves, to make choices, seems preferrable. We like to be “all that we can be,” and prefer to be the ones who make that determination.
There are few if any things in our lives that we do not believe can be made better. “New and improved,” is ubiquitous in the grocery aisles of our rich land.
All of this becomes very confusing when we turn our attention to Christianity and the Church. None of us would probably want to belong to a Church that billed itself as “new and improved,” and yet the assumptions that undergird much of our commercial civilization undergird much modern theology. The operative word here is “modern.”
When the Reformation began, it was, by definition, a “modern” movement. The philosophy that guided many of its leading lights was, in fact, known as the via moderna, to distinguish it from the way of Aristotle or Plato. Semper Reformanda (always in need of reform) was a hallmark of 16th century Western thought about the Church. Something was wrong and something needed to be fixed. The semper was probably the killer word. “Always” guaranteed not a reform, but reform as a way of life. Change became the name of the game.
Now it’s also true that many would probably want to nuance all of this and say that semper reformanda only referred to some things and only to the state of humanity who was “always” messing things up and therefore “always” in need of reform.
It’s hard to argue with that. As an Orthodox Christian I would quickly agree with any demand of “always repenting.” Anyone who is as accomplished in sin as myself would have to admit the constant need of repentance in life. The difference would be that as an Orthodox Christian I would agree that repentance is, in fact, the natural state of man, the right state of man in relationship with God, not simply the state needed to fix me. Repentance is what it looks like to rightly live in relationship with God, and not simply my efforts to return to some other state. We don’t really have a word for that other state. Righteousness cannot exist apart from repentance in the Orthodox life.
What is missing in modern notions of reform or change is an acceptance of the givenness of life. Givenness could perhaps be embraced as the “sovereign will of God” under many Reform schemes – but such ideas will always stand in tension with the notion of reform or change.
Orthodoxy certainly agrees that something has got to change – but that which must change is me. I am not the reformer of the Church – the Church is the reformer of me. There’s a great difference. I do not accept everything in life that is given – certain injustices are worth everything I can do to change them. But much of what must change in me is the idolatrous notion that I can change anything and everything.
Certain primal notions define our view of life and the world. “Ever Reforming” is one notion – one that plays a large part in our modern world.
The Orthodox notion of “fullness,” that God has given us the “fullness” of Himself is a contrary primary notion. It assumes that pretty much everything I need already stands there waiting. What hinders this fullness from taking up residence in my life is not the need to reform the fullness, but the need for this poor vessel to repent and yield its heart.
An interesting character who turned from one world view to another was the author, Fyodor Dostoevsky. As a young man he was enamoured of much of the revolutionary thought floating around Russia. Socialism (a secularized version of certain Christian ideas) promised to change the world. The result was a young man’s clash with the Tsar’s intelligence service and a death sentence.
The turning point of his life occurred in the last few minutes as he awaited a firing squad. In those few minutes, when, quite assuredly the revolution was not about to occur, Dostoevsky found a different revolution, one that changed him profoundly. Suddenly he saw life – the whole of it – and embraced the Gospel of Christ. As a Russian Christian he embraced that life in terms of the beauty of the given world. He saw the fullness of life around him that he had spurned and his heart discovered repentance. Fortunately, he was issued a reprieve and was instead sent into exile.
The result can be found by reading his novels. There, the world does not change – people do. The fullness comes to dwell in the heart of a murderer, a prostitute, a drunk, an idiot. In all of his characters, it is the fullness that beckons to a greater life, not the hubris of man’s dream of building a better world, or an improved church.
Competing visions – fullness and reform. Dostoevsky or Marx. On the whole, I’m happier with Dostoevsky.